Now, CJR—on the defensive and after the fact—has invited me to respond. But what can you say about a piece that is such a porridge of innuendo and insinuation, misrepresentations and deliberate distortions—all of it conspicuously unsubstantiated? Of the critics McConnell quotes, the only one who makes a concrete accusation against me is Howard French with his insidious insistence, reprised almost verbatim from his book, that “one of the most important things Gourevitch did was to liken the Rwandan experience to the Israeli experience, to the Holocaust.”
Analogies with the Holocaust and Israel and the Jews are not, in fact, an important part of my work—but it beats me why French thinks that this is such a damning criticism. The crime of genocide was defined in response to the Holocaust, and the association is inescapable. Surely, French (who never, as far as I can tell, reported from Rwanda himself) is wrong to imply that imposing a taboo on comparisons to the Holocaust would strip the story of the Rwandan genocide of its emotional power. That he should be eager for that is bizarre and distasteful.
Comparisons of Rwanda’s agony in 1994 to the Holocaust were ubiquitous in the American press long before I ever went there. The association was immediate, and it was not controversial. I didn’t see the need for such an analogy to convey the Rwandan ordeal: the stories of Rwandans were sufficient. By contrast, toward the end of 1995, just before my first report from Rwanda appeared, the first major book on the genocide was published in America: The Rwanda Crisis by Gerard Prunier, a Frenchman. Prunier’s book, which was immediately devoured by everyone who needed to know about Rwanda (Clinton policy makers, for sure), remains the history of the genocide you most often see cited in others’ bibliographies—and it is rife with analogies between the Tutsis and the Jews, and between Israel and post-genocide Rwanda.
In his book, French fantasizes about how I manipulate American policy by tugging on Holocaust heartstrings in a passage that lambastes Clinton officials for enabling Laurent Kabila’s Rwandan-backed campaign against Mobutu in 1996-97. French proclaims that the “most powerful factor at work” behind America’s policy was the association of the Rwandan genocide with the Holocaust—and he blames me. Why? Because I wrote the sentence that McConnell also cites: “The analogy that’s sometimes made between Rwanda’s aggressive defense policy and that of Israel . . . is inexact but not unfounded.” But here’s the thing: that line appeared in a New Yorker article of mine in September 2000, three and a half years after the moment when French bogusly inserts it into his history and complains about its terrible influence—not to mention fully two years after my book was published, a book in which the word Israel appears exactly zero times.
In reviews of French’s book, both Neal Ascherson, in The New York Review of Books, and Deborah Scroggins, in The Nation, seized on my line about Israel and accepted French’s fabrication about its influence. Of course, it has been a long time since invoking Israel’s militarization was a way of winning the political sympathies of readers of The Nation or The New York Review of Books. On the contrary, French was doing to me exactly what he was falsely accusing me of doing—exploiting political passions about Israel to harness American sympathies to an unrelated African conflict.
Although French is outraged to hear dead Jews and dead Tutsis mentioned in the same breath, he has no problem likening the killing of Hutus in Congo in 1997 to the Holocaust. On a trip to Kisangani that year, he writes of staring down a road “that reportedly led to the killing fields” where Hutus were believed to be being put to death, and he declares that what lies at the end of that road is “a crude little Auschwitz.”